Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
November 21, 2023
Wisconsin school libraries and media resources will share in a record $65 million in the coming year from the state’s Common School Fund thanks to strong investment earnings from the agency that manages the money.
The fund is fed by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL), which manages state trust funds that were created as Wisconsin sold off millions of acres of land that the federal government granted to the state in the 19th century. The BCPL also manages timber sales on the 77,000 acres that the agency still controls.
For public school libraries, “the Common School Fund is oftentimes the sole source of funding for books and technology,” said the BCPL’s chair, Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski, at a Capitol press conference announcing the 2024 distribution. “It supports our school librarians and our school media specialists to address their needs, but also critical challenges, like the digital divide.”
The Board of Commissioners of Public Lands is enshrined in the Wisconsin Constitution, which prescribes the Common School Fund among the beneficiaries of the board’s investment earnings. The constitution also names the state attorney general, the secretary of state and the state treasurer as the board’s members.
Godlewski quoted an aunt, a school librarian who told her that “the common school fund is our lifeline, and I don’t know what I would do without it.”
“For over 90% of school libraries, the Common School Fund is the only funding source,” said Kay Koepsel-Benning, president of the Wisconsin Educational Media & Technology Association. Today school libraries across the state serve 425,000 students, she said, and the fund has helped supply five million digital books in a statewide school digital library consortium along with print books and other assets.
The Common School Fund is “the only dedicated state funding for K-12 public school libraries,” said Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) and a high school English teacher.
Godlewski said that during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were holding class remotely, a teacher told her that “kids were driving into the McDonald’s parking lot to use the WiFi, and [school districts] were able to use those funds to buy hotspots.”
Godlewski, who chaired the board during her term as state treasurer from 2019 through 2022, credited the fund’s performance to its management by the BCPL staff, as well as to changes that the board made when she was elected chair. Those included allowing the fund to diversify to higher-return assets while reducing risk, she said, helping to make possible the 25% increase over the 2023 distribution.
Ending a rule that had barred the discussion of climate change “allowed us to address the potential risks [of climate change] as it would impact our portfolio,” Godlewski added.
Godlewski didn’t run for reelection to the treasurer’s office in 2022. She rejoined the BCPL when she was appointed secretary of state in March after incumbent Doug La Follette abruptly resigned less than two months after being sworn in for what would have been his 12th term.
After four years in which all three BCPL members were Democrats, the board became a two-party panel again this year when Republican John Leiber took office as state treasurer in January after being elected in November 2022.
Leiber ran on a platform that focused on serving with the BCPL as the principal duty of the treasurer’s office.
“I’m really happy to be able to step into something that’s really functioning well,” he said Tuesday. “And I want to make sure it keeps working that way.”
He noted that the Common School Fund money benefits schools without adding to taxpayers’ property tax bills.
Leiber also observed that he’s the only Republican on the board. “But that doesn’t really seem to have a big impact on how we vote,” Leiber told reporters. “Because we’re focused on a common goal” — trying to increase how much the fund can dole out every year.
“This check is bigger than last year, and next year, I’d like to see it even bigger,” Leiber said. “And it’s something we can all agree on, because we’re all working for the same purpose.” He called the board “an example of the way government should work,” with the members “looking out for the people, we’re trying to get the best service we can.”
Both Jill Underly, superintendent of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul drew a sharp contrast between school libraries as institutions for learning and access to information and a march by a small group of neo-Nazis in Madison over the weekend.
Both also implicitly criticized efforts to restrict access to books in some school districts around Wisconsin, which have been endorsed in proposed legislation.
“At this moment in our history, we need this gift, these spaces, to engage with new ideas and our history,” Underly said. “We need it in the face of hate and increased threats and attempts at silencing. When we saw neo-Nazis on the streets of the city this weekend, it was a manifestation of hate and fear, and this disgusting extremism can only grow in spaces of ignorance.”
Kaul said of the masked weekend demonstrators that “their views are fundamentally at odds with folks across the state [and] with what makes this country great — our pluralism, our diversity and our values.”
The funds from the BCPL to the schools “help make our communities safer” by expanding access to books so students can succeed, Kaul added, “but also because libraries are a safe place for students in communities across the state of Wisconsin.”